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Judy, Judy, Judy!:  On A&E, A Beautiful 'Rainbow

by TOM SHALES

March 23, 1997

 

Judy Garland would have been 75 in June. She wouldn't be able to sing anymore, but what stories she could tell! Now it remains for others to tell them, and they do, they do, in "Judy Garland: Beyond the Rainbow," a terrific "Biography" special premiering tonight on cable's Arts & Entertainment Network.

"Rainbow" is easily one of the best, most candid and most fascinating "Biography" shows ever produced, partly because its subject seemed to live a dozen lives rolled into one and partly because co-producers and co-writers Peter Jones and John Fricke seem to appreciate fully what made Garland great and wonderful as well as a first-class pain in the neck to work with.

Their 90-minute film, airing in a two-hour slot starting at 9 p.m., is full of pungent and poignant reminiscences from friends and cronies, most of them of Garland's generation. Among them: June Allyson, Mickey Rooney, Eddie Bracken, Robert Goulet, Margaret Whiting, Jackie Cooper, Ann Miller, Betty Comden and Adolph Green and even Hugh Martin, who wrote the lyrics for "Meet Me in St. Louis."

Martin sings the original lyric for "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and explains why Garland insisted he change it. It was too sad, and she didn't want to come off that way.

For whatever reason, the producers were not able to interview Garland's daughter Liza Minnelli, but they dug up plenty of footage of her talking about her mother on shows of the past. Others represented in previously filmed interviews include the late Vincente Minnelli, Dore Schary and George Cukor. Garland herself is seen chatting entertainingly with Jack Paar and Barbara Walters.

The producers also found three living Munchkins from "The Wizard of Oz," including Meinhardt Raabe, who played the coroner. We also hear from the widow of the doctor who brought Judy Garland into the world and who, fatefully enough, talked Garland's father and mother, Frank and Ethel Gumm, out of having an abortion. They had two children already and were hurting for money.

World-famous at age 16 for playing Dorothy Gale in "Oz," Garland went on to a singing and acting career of tremendous, almost self-parodic turbulence and heartbreak. But since she came out of the vaudeville tradition that said "the show must go on," she continued to dazzle and frazzle audiences until the end.

"There are lots of performers whose work I enjoy," Fricke said late last week from New York, "but no other entertainer has brought me the happiness that she did." Fricke wrote "Judy Garland, World's Greatest Entertainer," first published in 1992 and due in paperback later this year.

It took Jones and Fricke a year to convince A&E that Garland was worthy of a "Biography" special and another year and a half to make the program. One giant obstacle landed immediately in their path: Turner Entertainment Co., which owns most of the pictures Garland made at MGM ("Easter Parade" and "The Harvey Girls" among them), wouldn't license any clips for use on the special because Turner wants to make its own Garland biography someday.

"This was a real limitation," says Jones, "but it made us dig all the deeper for things people hadn't seen." It liberated them, in a way, from having to use all the same standard song clips over again. Their film is very much a biography and not "The Judy Garland Songbook." It's too bad, then, that the unimaginative programmers at A&E didn't have the brains to schedule some sort of Garland performance video -- one of her old movies or TV shows -- right after it.

Among the rare performances that are included is the unforgettable finale of a 1955 CBS Garland special. Garland, still in hobo makeup from a previous number (probably "A Couple of Swells," from "Easter Parade"), sits down on the edge of the stage and sings "Over the Rainbow" as she never quite sang it before, tinged with rueful bitterness. It was and remains a show biz landmark.

Best of all are the friends and associates of Garland, who remember her for her talent, her wit and all the bad things that happened when others tried to exploit her. At MGM, young Garland soon found herself on a studio-administered diet of uppers and downers to wake her up and put her to sleep and to help control her weight.

Ann Miller recalls a doctor who insisted on giving Garland drugs even though they were clearly making her miserable. "I could have taken a pot and hit him in the head," Miller says, clearly (and touchingly) still angry. Writer-producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who had an affair with Garland, remembers saying "The girl needs help" and trying to get her to a psychiatrist. But studio boss Louis B. Mayer objected, saying he didn't want the word getting out that MGM stars were crazy.

Garland's five marriages were no triumphs, either. "As brilliant as she was in almost everything, she had no sense about men," says Allyson, who looks and sounds as much the sweetheart as ever. Throughout her life, Garland was systematically exploited by men who saw her more as a gold mine than as a person. The producers also deal straightforwardly with Garland's appeal to gay audiences. Toward the end, Garland's concert appearances sometimes came off as exercises in communal self-pity for her and a segment of her constituency, but it wasn't always that way, the filmmakers point out.

They say that for many gay men, Garland was a symbol not of pathos but of resilience. The gay connection goes way back, apparently; Garland's father had affairs with men, it is reported, and Liza's first husband was gay entertainer Peter Allen.

What conclusion is to be drawn from all this? None, probably.

Also heard from on the show are longtime Garland pal Robert Stack ("She was a dear, wonderful, loyal friend"); producer-director Norman Jewison, who started as a fan and ended up producing Garland TV specials; and lyricist Leonard Gershe.

Jewison remembers a meeting with Garland backstage at an ice rink in the early '60s. She asked Jewison to wait a moment while she made a phone call. He sat there as she sang "Over the Rainbow" to someone at the other end of the phone and then added, "Happy birthday, Mr. President" before hanging up. She'd called John F. Kennedy in the White House and given him a gift only she could possibly have given.

Priceless anecdotes like that one, plus lots of surprising little facts even ardent Garland fans may not have known, make "Beyond the Rainbow" an exceptional and rewarding tribute, and the affection and devotion of the producers come through without anybody getting gooey. If anything, the interviewees are refreshingly frank and even bitchy.

Instead of ending with "Over the Rainbow," which would have been easy and obvious, the program concludes with Judy singing "Look for the Silver Lining" from "Till the Clouds Roll By," a movie that for some mysterious legal reason is now in the public domain and thus not controlled by Turner.

The lyrics to the song are appropriate and autobiographical in the way so many of Garland's songs turned out to be. "A heart full of joy and gladness," she sings, "will always banish sadness and strife." Or so one would like to hope.

For Garland, the sadness and strife are over. For the rest of us, the joy and gladness remain in all the work she left behind. "Beyond the Rainbow" is a splendid act of celebration.